► A 1970s car wearing a 21-plate
► Vintage off-roader imported and sold in the UK
► Immensely capable, shockingly likeable
If you go dewy-eyed over memories of the Cold War, if interior comfort comes secondary to rugged capability and if you think a Range Rover is for wusses, then boy oh boy, is this the car for you.
The Lada Niva has been in continuous production since 1977 with precious few mechanical changes made. It lives on as a proper model in its home market of Russia (or, as it was for the first 14 years of production, the Soviet Union…) but if you want to buy one in the UK, you can. Though it’s not been sold here officially since 1996, an independent importer will bring one in for you from just £19,595.
But does an off-roader from the 70s still hold up in any way today?
Comparison test: Lada Niva vs Morgan Plus Four CX-T
Certainly looks like a 70s car…
And isn’t that just fascinating? Everything about the Niva is bleakly retro, but in a really charming way – from the circular headlights with their ‘eyebrow’ indicators to the fantastically chunky bumpers front and rear. The slim pillars are a throwback to times before crash regulations, but give fantastic all-round visibility. That’s somewhat of a useful necessity, as the Niva is exclusively left-hand drive.
Open up the doors – with a separate key to the ignition, incidentally – and the 70s theme continues with a nostalgic waft of cheap plastic smell.
There’s a hilarious mix of new and old componentry, with a cheap’n’nasty modern instrument panel and heater controls straight from an old Renault rubbing shoulders with column stalks that could have come from the 50s.
With that in mind, you might be a bit surprised to see air-conditioning, electric windows and mirrors and heated seats. This is, however, the Luxe model, marked out by its alloy wheels. The basic car does without air-con but does get some very cool steelies.
You can even go further up the chain – higher-up models get moulded bumpers instead of the separate ones on our car, which we don’t think look as good. There’s even a factory camo paint option.
Five-door or van variants are available too, so it’s a proper range.
What you don’t get is any infotainment as standard – the Sony stereo here is aftermarket – and safety equipment is absolutely minimal. There’s an SOS eCall button, but whether you’ll be able to use it while impaled on the airbagless steering column is a different matter…
Does it drive like a 70s car?
The Niva doesn’t feel remotely modern to drive. The thing is, it doesn’t really feel bad to drive either.
The 1.7-litre engine is reasonably up-to-date – it meets Euro 5 emissions standards, so it’s actually ULEZ compliant, though with just 82bhp 0-62mph is best not attempted and it’s far more comfortable cruising at 60 than 70.
The steering’s hydraulically assisted giving it a reassuring heft though there’s a dead spot around centre that you could lose a hippo in. The driving position, meanwhile, is ridiculous. The seat won’t go back far enough, the pedals are tiny, the wheel doesn’t adjust and the vague gearshifter is positioned a real stretch away from the driver.
Even though it’s a left-hooker the Niva is so narrow and visibility is so good that it’s not in the least intimidating to drive around town. Economy from the elderly engine isn’t exactly stellar – we managed around 30mpg, and the tiny tank needs frequent filling.
What’s it like off-road?
Proper permanent four-wheel drive and diff locks. Tons of ground clearance and axle articulation. Negligible overhangs, plus bodywork panels so thin and basic they feel like you could take dents out with an iron. Combine this with the Niva’s featherweight 1,210kg and you’ve a recipe for some real old-fashioned fun on the rough stuff.
It scampers over the terrain rather than ploughing through it like a heavier rival and is very enjoyable in the process. And the lack of power doesn’t really matter when you’ve got the low-range ‘box engaged, though the engine does need to be revved hard to make much progress.
Okay, but does it actually make any sense?
So the Niva probably shouldn’t be your choice for a sensible family SUV by virtue of its non-existent safety score among other things.
But if you’re genuinely after an off-roader, you’ll be cross-shopping this with something like a Dacia Duster 4×4 or Suzuki Jimny… and at that point, it begins to look like a genuinely sensible and attractive proposition.
Its spacious, wipe-clean interior is just as useful as either of those cars. It’s not as good on-road as a Duster, but better on the rough stuff – and though a Jimny may be a more modern design it’s just as stupid a choice for long trips on tarmac. And once you’ve added four-wheel drive to the Duster, the three vehicles are all comparable on price.
Even if you never intend on taking it off-road, the Niva would make a brilliant advertising vehicle, as we got more attention driving it than we have in any supercar. Thumbs-up from passers-by, incredulous looks at the -21 number plate and several fond comments at petrol stations – the Niva met with universal acclaim.
Lada Niva: verdict
We absolutely love it. And with its low price, rock-solid off-road credentials and bullet-proof mechanicals the Lada Niva even makes a surprising degree of practical sense.
No, don’t buy it for a long commute, the London school run or long motorway trips. Buy it if your needs lie off the road, or consist of short trips on tarmac. Buy it if you love it.
A date’s been set for the end of production, so if you want one, you’ll need to place your order in time. The replacement will be much more modern, much more sensible, and much less exciting.